“Were You Close?”
This is the question that people ask me when they learn that my big brother died.
Were we close?
Of course we were! That’s a ridiculous question. This is David we’re talking about. Not just any brother, not just anyone, the best. When I was little, he changed my diapers and made up hilarious stories to send me off to sleep. He helped me learn how to swim and ride a bike and water ski. He encouraged me to be myself no matter what anyone else thought. And he always, always put his arm around me and kissed me right on the lips whenever I saw him. I loved him tremendously, and he would have done absolutely anything for me. I feel like half a person now that he’s gone. We were close.
After I stop shouting all of this in my head, my mind flashes to how much time often passed between our phone calls, how brief our emails were, how infrequently I visited him in Texas where we grew up and where he stayed, how over the course of nearly twenty years, he visited me only twice in my adopted state of Massachusetts. I didn’t know what was going on in his life a lot of the time other than the major stuff, like the woman he was currently dating or which adventure race he and his team were competing in next. With shame, I remember again—for the millionth time—that I hadn’t even known he was on one of his big outdoor excursions when he went missing, when it took two days to find him, when it was the end.
And after a pause, I answer softly, feeling almost embarrassed—like I’m not telling the whole truth—“Yes, yes we were.”
“Were you close?”
Asked sincerely and in the spirit of comfort by so many after David’s death, this question always put me on edge. It felt as though the response I gave would inform their reaction, as if what they actually wanted to ask was, “How sad are you? Do we need to brace ourselves? Or will simply saying, ‘Sorry for your loss,’ be sufficient?” Each time the question was posed, even if I didn’t fall apart, I sensed I had to defend my grief, my shattering sense of loss; as if I had to assure the questioner that I was entitled to my bottomless sorrow and reveal how much the event blew up my family, destroyed my assumptions about the future, and tipped my whole universe on its side. There were moments I was nearly inclined to embellish reality to justify my feelings. But then I wondered at my defensiveness. Why did I have to prove anything to anyone?
“Were you close?”
Such a seemingly innocuous thing to ask with such substantial implications. How do you even define closeness? The phrasing sounds so literal, as if the inquirer is asking whether I was physically proximate to my brother. And because the geographic distance was expansive between us, that alone causes me to question myself.
Obviously, the kind of closeness that friends and colleagues wondered about in the early aftermath of David’s death is emotional, experiential, intangible. It’s true that I adored David, was grateful for our relationship, looked up to him during childhood, and admired him in adulthood even when I was often mystified by his desire to challenge himself athletically in difficult, even severe, ways. All I ever wanted was to understand the things he was passionate about and maybe to feel that I was equal to him in some way—not competitively, but as peers—even if it meant just finally buying him a beer, instead of him saying, “Your money’s no good here,” which was his way of feeling good, of taking care of a little sister the way a big brother should, like he always did, pushing a pint in front of me at the bar.
“Were you close?”
I mean, I was only his sister. Not like a wife or child or even our mother.
Mom and I found my letters to him after he died, the ones I had written through college and beyond, organized in a manila file folder in his home office filing cabinet. I was touched to see they had been preserved, but sad by what they communicated. Over and over, I had written about wanting to be with him. Over and over, I offered to take him to dinner or buy him a drink or have him stay at my house. Over and over, I asked him to visit me, pointing out all the local natural features and attractions where my husband and I lived, the ones that might have enticed him: the bike path, the mountain range, the river, the swimming holes, the gorge.
There are outdoor opportunities here too—things you would love! I wrote again and again.
And he would write back, Sure, darlin’, someday I’ll come.
So, I did pine for that kind of closeness with him—in my physical life—as well as any and every other kind of closeness. Knowing none of it could happen now not only filled my eyes with tears, the impossibility filled me with rage—for our mutually cavalier attitude that we would have plenty of time to make these things happen.
I spoke to friends and strangers alike of my great love for David and how much we did together when we were growing up, when the truth is that he left the house when I was five or six. I saw him off and on, during holidays and by visiting him at college and medical school, then less and less after I went away to college and never moved back, when I didn’t visit our hometown, Houston, more than twice a year. He came to New England only for my college graduation and wedding, which were nearly twelve years apart—just like the span of our ages. So, was I being dishonest?
“Were you close?”
The real answer—or one answer—might be that we weren’t that close after all, not nearly as close I yearned to be all thirty five years that we had each other. Another answer might be that David and I were, at least, closer than I was with my brother Tommy, so that always felt like a distinction. But David and Tommy had been thick-as-thieves, bosom-buddies, two-peas in- a-pod, and any other cliché about closeness for as long as memory served. Only three years apart in age, they had been together in family photos I wasn’t born for, attended the same schools, and continued to live together off and on after moving out of our parents’ house. They talked almost every day.
David and I will never be as close as I imagined/hoped/expected we could be, and ultimately would be. I thought, like we all think, that we had time.
I had so many fantasies of growing old with him: I thought that one day I would not only buy him a lot of beers, but that we would see each other regularly and do more together, and that we would really, deeply get to know each other. That I would listen to more stories of his outdoor adventures and come to understand the thrill, the sense of achievement, the perspective that only summitting a mountain can provide. That he would spend time with my husband and dogs at my house. That I would reveal to him what it meant to make sense of life through words and music. That the gap our age difference had built into our relationship, the thing that had initially made him so much older and farther away, would continue to narrow—in terms of how it felt anyway—as the years passed and we got better at not just being siblings, but also at living, and at connecting with each other.
I expected, at the very least, we’d outlive Mom together. Of all assumptions I could make, that one seemed reasonable.
More than that, I was certain that one day David and I would be not just close—in any and every way it can be described—but very close. I wasn’t entirely wrong. I just didn’t have any idea about how it would happen.